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India has a hot new debate on its plate: Should the likes of Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s menus mention calories?

Business Insider India logoBusiness Insider India 17-12-2020 Sanchita Dash
a sandwich sitting on top of a table: India has a hot new debate on its plate: Should the likes of Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s menus mention calories? © Unsplash India has a hot new debate on its plate: Should the likes of Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s menus mention calories?

  • The new guidelines by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India state that restaurants will have to mention the calorific values on menu cards, boards or booklets.
  • Food aggregators like Zomato or Swiggy too have to comply with these new rules.
  • However, restaurant owners feel that this move is “uncalled for,” especially since it comes at a time when they are already struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While they are being introduced in India for the first time, similar laws already exist in countries like the US and the UK.
Fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King have already been forced to follow “calorie labelling” in several countries, including the US, and now they might have to add the numbers on their menus in India as well.

The new guidelines issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) state that restaurants or cafes with a central license or with more than ten outlets will have to mention the calorific values on menu cards, boards, or booklets.

“Additionally, reference information on calorie requirements shall also be displayed clearly and prominently as an average active adult requires 2,000 kcal energy per day, however, calorie needs may vary”, said the guidelines.

While players like Rebel Foods, the cloud kitchen company which operates chains like Faasos, Behrouz Biryani has always sworn by quoting the calorific value and defining the contents of the food served, as a customer-first approach, many other restaurant chains like Mamagoto, Chaayos, Wow Momos among others could soon have to deal with the calorie fight.

And food aggregators like Zomato or Swiggy aren’t spared from the same as the new guidelines for labelling apply to e-commerce food business operators as well as the packaged food industry.

Arguments in favour of calorie labellingArguments against the calorie labelling
Customers can make a more informed decision – they want to know what they are consuming. Customer consumption patterns won’t change – "a butter chicken will still be preferred over a salad".
India won’t go the Western way – will keep a check on obesity.Marketing costs like new menus will be a burden for the already battered industry.
Food service establishments will develop cautious brand building practices across the board, guaranteeing quality output.Standardization is not possible with Indian food, where chefs still have their own andaaz (style)
Restaurants fear harassment in the name of regulatory monitoring.

Gurbaxish Singh Kohli, Vice President of the Federation of Hotels and Restaurant Association of India (FHRAI) says labelling the calorie count on menu cards might not directly impact restaurants, but it’s uncalled for. “What is the mindset behind this? Will people come, read the calorie count and then leave the restaurant? Or instead of butter chicken they are going to order a salad?,” Kohli told Business Insider.

The FHRAI has already written to the FSSAI, giving its inputs regarding the new guidelines.

While Kohli said that he doesn’t disagree with the norms, it shouldn’t come as a mandate. “If the FSSAI wants to do this, it should be voluntary. In a period where we are already hit so badly, putting up these new norms… I would call it irrelevant,” said Kohli.

Pradeep Shetty, the Sr Vice President of The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India said, “The intention of the FSSAI is noble, they want to bring down the trans fat. They don’t want India to go the way many western countries have. They aren’t prohibiting people from eating, but just to make an informed decision.”

The standardization could still work for restaurants with a limited standard menu across the country – chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Dominos, among others. But it’s not going to be the same story for the very ‘Indian’ restaurants.

Restaurants in India don’t have just one problem with the new labelling guidelines – in fact, the issues are going to be multifold. Kohli explained that having the new labelling guidelines means printed new menu cards leading to new marketing expenses, which are uncalled for. Moreover, the food at Indian restaurants is more often than not customised, which means customers have demands like “extra butter” or “make it with olive oil”. “That addition or deletion of butter makes all the difference in the calorific value. What we fear is more harassment for a sector that is already harassed,” he said.

Counting the calories: The new global norm?

Placing the calorie count on menu cards isn’t just a norm being introduced in India. It is already enforced in countries like the US and the UK as a measure to control obesity, albeit questionably. In fact, in the US a law was passed in 2018 that stated that any restaurant with 20 or more outlets will have to state the calorie count of its food items.

Researchers at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health conducted a study that showed that such a move would produce $10-14 billion in healthcare cost savings and another $3-5 billion in societal cost savings.

In India too, many brands have been following the standard of adding calorie count on menus even before it was a norm. “The customer today wants to know what they are consuming, how safe it is, where the produce came from, and so forth. To help with all these, it becomes essential for brands to help consumers with the required information, to keep their faith in the food they consume, and thereby, the brand. This will also develop cautious brand building practices across the board, guaranteeing quality output,” said Sagar Kochhar, Co-founder, Rebel Foods.

While the policy has a long way to go, it poses another problem as well – how will the government keep a check on restaurants across the country. “That also means that restaurants will have to hire an expert to keep a check or define the calorie count, which is another added expense,” said Shetty.

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